Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft ran down his top priorities for in a June 30 interview with Navy Times in his Washington, D.C., office. (PA2 Patrick Kelley/Coast Guard)
It’s been one month to the day since Adm. Paul Zukunft took the helm of the Coast Guard, and now that he’s had some time to get situated, he’s talking about his direction for the service.
Zukunft is looking at a number of improvements, from codifying the Coast Guard’s cyber strategy to adjusting ship-to-shore rotations, giving Coast Guardsmen the opportunity to spend more time in one place to develop their expertise.
It’s a cost-saving measure as much as anything else, Zukunft said, and a big help in an environment where the Coast Guard’s $10 billion budget stretches thinner every year.
Zukunft moved to headquarters after a tour as Pacific Area commander, in charge of operations from the Rocky Mountains to the farthest reaches of the Western Hemisphere.
“People say, ‘Well, you’re new to the job,’ but quite honestly, I’m probably one of the oldest people in the Coast Guard right now,” he said in his first wide-ranging sit-down since taking charge as the service’s top officer. “I’ve spent 34 of my 37 years in the field, so I’ve seen firsthand where some of our challenges are and where some of our opportunities are.”
After graduating in 1977 from the Coast Guard Academy, Zukunft spent most of his career as a cutterman, commanding the Cape Upright, Harriet Lane and Rush.
In 2010, he was the federal on-scene coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, directing more than 47,000 responders, 6,500 vessels and 120 aircraft in the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
Now, as commandant, he’s shifting focus to the future and well-being of the force. In his commandant’s direction, Zukunft outlined his focus areas. Aligning recruiting, career progression and workforce structure is a priority, and it might bring some stability to the lives of all Coast Guardsmen.
Reshaping the service’s ship-to-shore rotations would assure that the service doesn’t train up a bunch of specialists and then ship them off to somewhere new, where they might not use their skills.
“We never get out of that vicious [cycle] — you know, you train, you qualify, but you never become proficient in maintaining that platform.,” Zukunft said in the interview Monday at his office in Washington, D.C. “As a result of that, you become very dependent on outside support, contractors to be the subject matter experts of your platforms. We need to be subject matter experts of what we do as well.”
On top of the technical expertise, Zukunft said there are real benefits to staying in one region for a while. You become an expert in the area, you build relationships with the community, and you save a lot of money from the decreased number of permanent change-of-station moves. In addition, spouses will be better able to manage their careers and children will shift schools less frequently.
Zukunft said a third of the force moves every year, but that there are commands like Hampton Roads, Virginia, and Seattle, where Coast Guardsmen can serve back-to-back-to-back assignments. Ideally, he said, he’d like to increase those opportunities.
“I’m in my 21st set of orders,” he said. “You know, shame on us, where you have to move that many times.”
For an exclusive Q&A with Zukunft on the future of Coast Guard cyber, diversity and budget changes, check out the Navy Times that hits newsstands July 7.